Reuters

Blame cars, and coal-fired burners.

There’s long been a rivalry between China’s two best-known cities, Shanghai and Beijing, ranging from political cliques to business interests. A few areas where Shanghai supposedly had the lead were air quality and quality of life.

Then this happened: Yesterday and today, Shanghai experienced some of the highest levels of air pollution ever recorded in China. The US Consulate in Shanghai reported levels were "beyond index" — i.e., off the charts.

Shanghai authorities had to warn the elderly and children to stay indoors as air pollution reached levels 10 times what the World Health Organization deems safe to breathe. Even South Korea and Japan are complaining (paywall) about the pollution that’s floating over to them.

Visibility was reduced to a few dozen meters as commuters used dust masks to filter fine particulate matter from the air. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

This isn’t just a health hazard. It’s also potentially a blow to the economy of Shanghai, which is trying to position itself as the region’s new financial and commercial hub with a new free-trade zone. Bad pollution could make it less likely that businesses and financial professionals from Hong Kong or elsewhere will relocate there.

Shanghai’s reliance on coal-fired boilers is largely responsible for its air pollution problem. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

How did Shanghai, a city that visitors often say is among China’s most charming for its winding alleys, art scene, and proximity to the sea get so polluted? There's automobile traffic, of course, but the worst offenders are Shanghai’s many coal-fired boilers for electricity production and industrial use. The city wants to get rid of more than 2,500 of them by 2015, replacing the power generation component with natural gas-fired plants and electricity bought from further afield. It plans to replace some of the industrial applications with electric boilers.

Shanghai is also going to enact anti-pollution measures that are much tougher than Beijing’s (paywall). Those include stopping industrial production, shutting down coal-fired power plants and banning trucks carrying dust-causing payloads when the air pollution index hits 300. Beijing’s anti-pollution measures don’t kick in until the air pollution index hits 500—or about where it was in Shanghai on Dec. 6, when the pictures in this piece were snapped.

This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.

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